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The Ecology of Colour
by James A. Wise [message nº 129]

In issue No. 126 we wondered “Does Colour Exist?”. Now, two literature reviews of a hundred years research on the Human Factors of colour reveal how and where colour exists, and how designers can best use it in real and simulated environments. Jim Wise explains it for us.

James A. Wise, PhD. is an experimental and mathematical psychologist. He is CEO of Integral*Visuals, Inc. a consulting company in Richland WA, USA specializing in the Human Factors of Information Visualization. He was Project Manager for the R&D 100 Award winning SPIRE text visualization system developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in 1994-'96, and has a long trajectory of research around design for information systems, displays and environments. His recent research has centered on information systems for sustainable design and development, citizen stakeholder participation via web-based communications, and fractal-based design strategies. 

He sees Information Visualization "as both a foundational capability and recurrent theme in the rise of human civilization, and a developmental force for its future". He has kindly contributed this interesting paper 
to InfoVis:

Wise & Wise (1988) reviewed over 200 studies on color in environmental design in a technical report for NASA, to ascertain whether purposeful use of color in the design of interiors for isolated and confined habitats (like space stations and lunar bases) could be scientifically shown to have any effects on human performance, health or well-being.

They revealed a scientific compendium of color very different from its popular mythology, which presents colors as unitary ‘active entities’ that influence human perception and emotion in direct and predictable ways. But in most all situations studied, hue alone is not nearly as important as the hierarchy of brightness ratios or saturations in object colors against their backgrounds in a scene. In terms of empirical evidence, color was not as simple and unitary a phenomenon as many designers and theorists had proposed.

Their review established three definitive conclusions from the literature:

  • First, there were no ‘hard-wired’ linkages between pure environmental colors and judgmental or emotional states in people, with possible narrow exceptions for ‘red’ and perhaps ‘blue’. In fact, the habit then of specifying colors on the basis of their possessing certain ‘active principles’ that directly affected people actually misled and inhibited the more effective and creative use of colors in design.

  • Second, there were demonstrable, replicable behavioral and perceptual effects from colors that justified their use in setting designs. These effects appeared to be due mostly to successive and simultaneous visual contrasts in the brightness and saturation components of colors as these occur in the designed environment. Thus it was a ‘contextual’ use of color in the setting that produced effects on occupants, and not the explicit color of certain single elements.

  • Third, Colour needed to be investigated ‘in context’. This means that scientific investigation of the human factors of colour was not generally aided by highly reductionist studies that invoked ‘tabletop experiments’ with colour swatches and chips to arrive at sweeping generalizations about colour perception. .

The succeeding 15 years of research has largely proceeded along this contextual path as investigators have engaged evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, and expanded Colour studies to include Patterns and Textures. 

These have shown that in the sheer neuro-anatomy alone of the eye-brain system, there is no means by which any ‘primary’ spectral quality of light directly impinges on central brain processes. The eye is not like a camera, recording an objective colour reality for the discernment of an internal, mental observer. Even experience of a vaunted colour primary, Yellow, has been definitively shown to result from processing in the cerebral cortex and not the retina of the eye, where any primary should be first received (Nijhawan & Khurana, l997). 

So the emerging view of colour, called ecological, or ‘enactive’ by its proponents (Thompson, Palacios, &Varela, l992), now characterizes colour from the perspective of an organism embedded in its visually rich environment. This asks what purpose colour vision is for in the particular context, and how has the organism’s neural and sensory structures equipped it to process the kinds of different spectral reflectances and scattering of light that produce colour-relevant information to guide the behaviors it displays. 

In this view, colour becomes a property of the ‘loop of information’ that supports ecologically guided behavior of an organism, and colour is not distinctively and exclusively in either the being or the world. 

Here, colour becomes neither totally an objective or subjective phenomenon, but is rather ‘enacted’ in the visually guided behavior of organisms going about their lives in their relevant habitats. Colour now becomes an informational phenomenon peculiar to the circuits that link organism and environment

The perceptual characteristics of those habitats are uniquely available to the organisms in their varying kinds of supported interactions, and so mechanisms and uses of colour vision reveal an astounding variety of form and detail; all the while constrained by fundamental environmental imperatives. Bees and pigeons ‘see’ colours that humans never can, but those colours may only serve as influences of foraging or navigational behavior and not colour perceptions as such, because they are only relevant to explicit behavioral patterns. 

Animals in turn influence, through their foraging and fertilization assistance, the kinds of colours that flowers or fruits will display. Any one of the 14 physical processes that produce colour (see Nassau, 1980), and an organism’s use of it, combine in an elaborate dance of life to ‘enact’ colour in a way and time and place that is meaningful within the informational circuits alone. Colour, like time and space and light, is relative to the behaving organism.

What does this mean for colour’s use in Information Visualizations? It prominently suggests that the most effective uses of colours are likely those that reiterate the informative importance that colour, pattern and texture have exercised in the survival of our species over eons of geologic time. If we are visually attuned to certain patterns of space, form, texture and environmental colour as a means to guide or regulate our behavior, then those same characteristics ought to be relevant in successful simulations of informative environments, like information visualizations. 

These sorts of recurrent influences might be called ‘ancient wisdom’ that is carried with us, biologically bound in the chemistry of tears (aqueous humors) in our eyes, the trichromacy of our retinal cones, and the curious switch to a post-retinal neural encoding in three channels of opponent processes. The latter is now regarded as an adaptation to terrestrial landscapes (Shepherd 1992) and the need to maintain invariants in brightness ratios under all of the ways in which sunlight diurnally and annually varies. The peculiarities of colour are revealed not in the ways environments change for us, but in the ways survival relevant cues stay the same.

This is a new view of colour vision and applications, in line with our modern relativistic view of the universe. Its implications will be explored further in a forthcoming issue of Inf@Vis.

Introduction to James A. Wise and translation to the Spanish version by Juan C. Dürsteler


  • Nassau, Kurt (1980) The Causes of Color. Scientific American, October, 124-154.
  • Nijhawan, Romi & Khurana, Beena (1997) Visual decomposition of color through motion extrapolation. Nature, March 6.
  • Shephard, Roger (1992) The perceptual organization of colors: An adaptation to regularities of the terrestrial world? In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby, (Eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. pp 495-532, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Thompson, Evan, Palacios, Adrian, & Varela, Francisco (1992) Ways of coloring: Comparative color vision as a case study for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15, 1-74.
  • Wise, Barbara K., & Wise, James A. (1988) The Human Factors of Color in Environmental Design: A Critical Review. Final NASA Contractor Report No. NCC 2-404, March. 
  • Wise, James A. (2003) The Ecologic of Colors, Patterns and Textures in Real and Simulated Environments: A Review and Synthesis of the Literature. (in prep).

Links of this issue:

http://www.pnl.gov/infoviz/spire/spire.html   SPIRE
http://www.pnl.gov   Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
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